If you are interested in the horse-race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington-DC portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the entire year before Election Day. This means that right now is a good time to move to Nashua, New Hampshire, or Des Moines, Iowa, if you are a politics addict.
The reasons for this are obscure and boring, unless you live in either state. In that case you might be passionate about your community’s role in selecting our next President. It might be the one thing you care about, and you might care about it more than the name of the person who will get your vote.
In our game of politics, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes … uh, often … well, usually … that party’s candidate for the national election in November.) Because Iowa and New Hampshire vote in January, and because these are the first two contests (albeit in two very sparsely populated states), undue attention is paid to the voters in those states for most of the year before January. This year, both parties are going crazy.
Iowa votes in a caucus system of voting, a town hall meeting at which you vote out loud or by standing up when your candidate’s name comes up, and New Hampshire votes in a primary system, with ballots and privacy. And now I have hypnotized you via boredom and you will do my bidding …
The candidates and the news media descend on the states like a plague of locusts with thick wallets. They rent rooms, cars, restaurants. The local business owners love the year before election year.
Thus the two states fight very hard every four years to hold their place as first, fight so hard that both states always claim to be “The First” each and every time, even though Iowa comes first and New Hampshire a week later. Iowa uses one type of voting system and New Hampshire a completely different one, so they are both always first. It comes down to money: because they are each first, both states receive a quadrennial economic boost unlike any other, with political candidates and their support teams and journalists and their support teams needing food, shelter, and television time (not in that order of importance) for months before January. This is the year that “quadrennial” starts to appear in news articles, too.
Some nationally famous politicians have rented houses in Iowa to live in and signed year-long leases for the year of door-to-door campaigning they will do. Other states would love to be first in the nation, to attract those millions of dollars, but these two small-population states put up a winning fight with both the Democratic and the Republican parties every four years and get to be first in the nation to cast ballots.
From 2000 to 2004, I lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city of about 125,000 in a state of three million. Iowa is geographically larger than New York State but possesses one-sixth of the population. So that means that in 2003, I was in the second-largest city in the first of the two “First in the Nation” small-population vote-casting states for Election 2004: Bush v. Kerry. With George W. Bush running for re-election unopposed that year, it meant that almost every Democrat elected to any office anywhere in the country was campaigning for President in Iowa. So many were there that I remember waiting on line at my coffee shop behind a U.S. Congressman who was running for President; at that moment he was just someone else taking too long to order his latte. There was no media covering this fiasco.
I am a progressive voter, to the left of most Democrats but tending to vote for members of that party. But I also fall head over ballot for every candidate who claims to be the representative from the “Land of New Ideas.” Rarely do we hear what those New Ideas might be or how much he or she may think they will cost, but I love the idea of New Ideas.
Selling New Ideas is an Old Idea, but I am a happy customer every time. Thus my life’s list of candidates I have rooted for while they were running for the next office higher than the one they already possessed includes several people named Kennedy, Gary Hart, the late Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and, in 2003, a North Carolina senator named John Edwards. There are others, but I am blushing with embarrassment while typing this.
I should retire my political instincts. Then-Senator Edwards was one of the few politicians I have ever heard speak about rural as well as urban poverty as a blight, a blight because it is a problem that can be easily tackled and quickly remedied if the country’s political will can be inspired. I was inspired. From 2004-’08, it could be said that he pushed the bigger-name candidates further to the left (some might think that a good thing and some might not), but from 2004-’08 it could also be said that he was doing some other (um, scandalous) things.
And I met him! Great. And my immediate, instinctual, in-person reaction to the man was: “I do not like him.” Oh, the inner conflict.
In January 2004, days before us Democratic Party-affiliated Iowans were to cast our first-in-the-nation votes, our so very first votes that New Hampshire was going to be the second first, so stuff it, New England!, just days before that, I saw him speak. He gave a great speech: People are poor. We must do something. Speech over. In the crowded room, we all discovered that that single-door entrance way over there was now the single-door exit for everyone, including the candidate and his handlers, who must hate situations like this when they come up all the time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Edwards had to leave along with the crowd of 500. No bodyguard. No announcement requesting that we wait for the senator to leave first. I was next to him—pressed against him—for the five minutes it took us to traverse the ten yards to the door. He shook my hand; he shook everyone’s hand within reach.
I have met a few politicians, and I have met quite a few people who ought to run for office, but I have never been rendered invisible quite as quickly as I was by that man. It may qualify as the single most bizarre social encounter I have ever had: I have been dismissed mid-conversation plenty of times, even made to feel that I offended someone by entering their consciousness, but I’ve never been looked at like I was the fog covering a man’s bathroom mirror and he was about to clear me away with his washcloth.
Perhaps he was anxious from the overwhelming crowd and irked by the fact that I did not immediately produce the magical way out of the room while he was looking for a way out of the room, or perhaps it was the attractive woman immediately behind me. Perhaps it was because, a bright man, a good reader of courtroom juries in his lawyer life, he had picked up on my instinct to not like him. Or perhaps it was the shoulder-length head of hair behind me who wanted and received his autograph. I have no idea. No clue.
What did I do with this instinct to not like John Edwards? I convinced myself to ignore it because I agreed with his message, and I gave a speech for him at my caucus site on election night that swung our district over to him. My gosh, I agreed to disagree—with myself.
(I did not reach out to the former Vice Presidential nominee and former Senator, who is now one of the more disliked men in America, for comment.)
(This column originally ran on December 6, 2014, under the name, “Listen When I Tell You Not to Listen to Me.” It was edited and re-published on March 15, 2015, in “Disagree to Agree.” I’ll get it right one of these days. I should write the story of caucus night itself.)
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